North Korea - The Aggressive Hermit Kingdom

By CTU Faculty

From an ethnocentric cultural stance to a ramped-up military, the repressive North Korean communist regime has been featured frequently in the news in recent years and for good reason. As part of CTU’S backgrounder, “Global Security Series – The North Korean Threat,” Dr. Morag writes about North Korea’s military capabilities and why the United States, South Korea and Japan in particular need to be so careful.

North Korean ArmyNorth Korea has one of the world’s largest armies with 1.2 million men and women in uniform. However, due to the country’s economic problems, the military is saddled with aging and poorly maintained equipment, as well as with serious morale and troop-welfare issues. Accordingly, North Korea has built its military strategy around asymmetric warfare using long-range artillery, attacks by special operations forces and ballistic missiles.

North Korea has also been actively pursuing a long-range ballistic missile program. Ballistic missiles operate somewhat like bullets. Just as a bullet is powered by the gunpowder in the casing but once free of the firearm flies along a trajectory without any independent source of power (it is just a piece of metal flying through the air), a ballistic missile warhead is propelled out of the earth’s atmosphere by rocket motors, and then it follows a trajectory and is pulled back down to the earth by the force of gravity rather than its own power source. The longest-range ballistic missiles are known as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and the regime in Pyongyang was experimenting with one of these when, on April 13, 2012, it launched a missile into orbit. The launch itself was a spectacular failure with the missile exploding over the Yellow Sea within less than two minutes of takeoff. But the North Koreans were undaunted, and they finally succeeded, on December 12, 2012, in launching a missile into space. (They claim it deployed a satellite.) This means, in theory, that North Korea now has the capacity to build ICBMs that could hit the U.S. mainland, because if a country can launch a satellite or any other object into space, then it is well-timed to start developing an arsenal of ICBMs. (Much of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War had as much to do with developing military capabilities as it had with reaching the moon.) Of course, building ICBMs that can accurately deliver a warhead from North Korea to the U.S. mainland may still take years. This is of little consolation to Washington, which understands that the regime in Pyongyang is aggressive, extremist and more than a bit irrational.

Image Credit: Flickr/Eric Lafforgue